How do you become an independent meeting planner? In many cases, if the five veteran independents who participated in a recent Convene virtual roundtable are any indication, it happens partway through your career and somewhat accidentally. Some of our participants went out on their own for personal reasons, while others were interested in the professional opportunities it presented. But all five agree that it was one of the best career choices they ever made.
Which isn’t to say that independent planners have it easy. Being independent means being your own boss and growing your brand just the way you want it. It also means long hours and the constant search for new clients. Our five planners share their stories — the good, the bad, and the ugly of independent planning — as well as the industry trends that keep them on their toes.
How did you become an independent planner?
Annette Suriani I had always worked directly for an association here in the D.C. area. Then when my father got ill and I needed some flexibility to help my mother take care of him, I found that being an independent meeting planner was the best way to go for me. Then I could work from home, I could work around the clock, or from my parents’ house if I needed to.
Melissa Johnson I sort of fell into it accidentally, but happily accidentally now. I had always also been working directly for an association or a corporation here locally [in Kansas City]. I had a really bad experience in my last job where I just wasn’t a fit for the culture of the company. It was very stressful and it was a lot of hours. At that time in my life I was having a milestone birthday, and I always wanted to go out on my own, but I never really had a reason to becauseI always had a good-paying job with a benefits package and everything else. But that experience of working for an organization that wasn’t a fit for me and really stretched me physically and emotionally in ways that I hadn’t been stretched — in not a positive or healthy way — just sort of made me look around and evaluate.
Polli-Jo Moryl I, too, kind of took a circuitous route. I have a master’s in public affairs, and had worked for Congress and a number of big organizations in a representative role. Then I started working for a worldwide association with status with the UN. After my association work, I thought — you know, sometimes it’s easier to see things in hindsight — “Wow, the skillset that really ties together [my previous work] and my entrepreneurial side is [that I’m good at] working for myself.” I’m using my strongest skills in meeting and event planning, so I kind of took a winding route, but it’s a really, really great fit for me.
Claire Abrams My whole career’s been in association meeting planning for dental, medical, or commercial associations. When my first child was born, I knew that the crazy commute was too much for me. Though I tried to work closer to home, it just was not a good fit, so I decided I’m going to give myself a break and kind of examine where I am and what I wanted to do. I’d been taking an introspective look at myself and my career for a little less than a year when a former director called me and asked if I was interested in planning the first-ever dental specialty organization conference between three dental specialties. It had never been done before and they had no one in-house to plan it. It was just such a great setup for me that once that was completed, I decided that this is what I wanted to do.
Valerie Sumner When I started in the industry, I started in the hotel sales and marketing area. Then I had the opportunity to work for a firm in Washington, D.C. I started with them as a destination-management firm, and we evolved and grew that business into a meeting-management firm in addition to DMC work. I was there for 23 years, and ended up as the president. And from that point in time — let’s see, must’ve been 12 years ago, we started VRS Meetings & Events. My sister and I started the organization, and it has been growing and evolving ever since.
What are the pros and cons of being an independent planner versus working in-house?
Polli-Jo Moryl I think we probably will agree to this — that it’s the flexibility that it gives us, because we can work from home and if we need to do something in the afternoon, we can make up for lack of working that afternoon doing it at night or getting up early in the morning.
Melissa Johnson Obviously the flexibility is the biggest thing for me as well, but the other thing that I very much enjoy is that I am the boss, the CEO, and the worker bee all wrapped into one. I have to be responsible for all of it, and I’m just responsible for me, myself, and I.
Annette Suriani I love being my own boss and being responsible for my own future and destiny. It’s a huge plus that I have to admit, but it’s a huge challenge, too, because you have to do all the stages of the business all the time, and even while you’re immersed in a project you need to be updating the next project.
Claire Abrams It really forces you to get out there and to be proactive and to do some very constructive networking. It’s not just about going to a reception and talking to people you know. You really have to get out there and strategically think about who you want to talk to and who is going to be an advocate for you and who you can learn from as well.
Valerie Sumner The con is you really don’t have a five-year permanent salary coming in, you know? You’re always making sure that there is business on the books [and that] you are talking to people to get new business. You’re always on your toes. But I think every event planner, even in-house, should be that way. Looking for ways to bring value, and bring expertise, so that you’re always keeping current.
Annette Suriani You can’t be a risk-averse person and do this. I have to be willing to take the risk.
Are you finding that more organizations are looking to outsource their events?
Annette Suriani Oh, I’m definitely seeing more.
Melissa Johnson I’m seeing more, too.
Claire Abrams As an independent planner, I see myself going up against many other independent planners and third parties and people who are looking for full-time jobs but can’t get them. I feel like there’s a lot of competition, and I’m seeing it over the last year specifically.
Valerie Sumner I’ve found that is the case to some degree. They’re outsourcing various different things at different times, depending on what the organization needs. I think the thing that’s really key about our rm and the independent-planning world is really having a consultative approach with every client and every colleague you work with. You never know what it is that an organization might be looking for that particular year, or what their strategic plan is. I think having the expertise, the flexibility, and the willingness to be a consultant helps you be an asset for an organization.
Do you think more planners are becoming independent because they’re recognizing the benefits you’ve discussed?
Melissa Johnson I do think that that’s part of it, because when I first started in the industry 20 years ago, there was like one person that I knew of locally that did what I do now. That was it. Now, there is a sea of options, and I do think that there’s more people that see the bene t of everything we just described.
Annette Suriani Yeah, and these larger third parties — they really are making lots of phone calls, I guess, and doing a lot of networking. Their main service, though, for the most part, is sourcing. So we as independents have to show more value.
Claire Abrams It’s all about showing the value that you can provide to your client. Whether it’s a third party that’s going to show value, or whoever, we show value, too. There are pros and cons of everything, but we need to show the pros and the value of people outsourcing to an independent professional.
Melissa Johnson I’m up against that, too, in Kansas City, where there’s a lot of the association world that gets called on by these massive, mega third parties who are after their commissions tied to bigger annuals in their larger meetings. I do have to differentiate myself between what they provide and what I can provide, because my scope of services goes way beyond just sourcing.
Polli-Jo Moryl That is a challenge in that sometimes I’ll meet with a potential client and they’ll say, “Oh, well, my admin does that,” so increasing the learning curve or educating people about all the possibilities is really a challenge for me, too.
Melissa Johnson I love it when I say I’m a meeting planner and they say, “Oh, yeah, my admin does that,” or, “Oh, so you plan weddings?” It’s like, “No, I don’t do that!”
What meeting trends do you find most intriguing right now?
Polli-Jo Moryl I’m really enjoying the determined efforts that a lot of my clients are making toward health and wellbeing and integrating that into meetings — the trend toward integrating movement or master breaks or self-care into a meeting.
Annette Suriani Some of my clients really want to use technology more. You know, they’re supposed to be on the cutting edge of technology within their industries, so therefore we have to be on the cutting edge of technology when producing their annual.
Valerie Sumner Technology, yes. It’s a huge trend, but it’s more about matching the right technology to achieve some sort of strategic objective that makes sense for the client. Because just to have technology for technology’s sake doesn’t really do a whole lot if it doesn’t help the content. The other thing I would say we’re doing is that a lot of clients have been doing a lot of alternate learning styles, alternate learning tech — ways to deliver content or deliver an experience that is more connected to the attendee. It might be learning labs, it might be classrooms, it might be virtual reality.
Melissa Johnson I would say the biggest trend I’m seeing is just overall growth. Which, you know — these are associations who have been stagnant in growth for many years, and in the last two to three their growth is trending very quickly upward, and it’s trending upward mostly among their youngest association members. It’s very encouraging for them, because these are medical-type associations that typically haven’t seen that type of year-over-year growth. The challenge for a meeting professional is just figuring out how to manage that growth when you’re booking them four to five years out, and you’re looking into a crystal ball trying to figure out how many people you’re really going to have at that point.
Claire Abrams Growth in membership, growth in younger members, and growth in people’s interest and excitement to attend an annual meeting or an educational-type conference.